The whole of the small shed which was Kendall Stockton’s home shuddered,sending specks of grit pattering into her cropped blonde curls andsliding down the newssheet she held. The strange sound was gone as soonas she’d registered it, leaving all the geese and ducks and chickenswhich roamed the Back Green squawking their heads off.
Not able to guess what was happening, Kendall dashed outside. Nothingodd in the garden or around the blackened remains of Gran’s house, soshe ran round the other side of her shed, and stopped to stare. Therewas someone lying in the middle of the Green.
It was still well before evening, and the Green fell inside thevillage’s circle, so Kendall felt safe taking a few halting stepscloser. Lying there unmoving was a woman in a white dress, her armsstretched to either side, and her long pale hair fanned out around her.
"Are – are you hurt?"
There was no reply, only the retreating protest of fowl, and a shoutfrom the Lippon house. Kendall hadn’t been the only one in Falk to hearand feel…whatever had happened. Wanting to see more before the entireLippon clan arrived, Kendall crossed to within a few feet of the strangefigure.
The woman didn’t move at all, just lay there in the grass. She wasbeautiful. Her long hair curled from a wide forehead, around her pointedface and all the way out to the very tips of her fingers. That hairwasn’t much darker than her dress, and her skin was whiter than seemedpossible. Though her eyes were shut, and Kendall could see no sign ofmovement, the woman didn’t look dead. Her chin was up, and her headdidn’t sag to either side. Even her feet were neatly together.
"It’s a lady!" The first of the Lippons had arrived. Fearless Jessamy,skidding to a halt just beside Kendall. "Ever so fine!"
True. The long, white dress shimmered in the sunlight, and the stitchingwas better than any fancywork Kendall had ever seen. Unlike Kendall,Jessamy didn’t shy off taking the last few steps to the woman’s side,but gasped and fell back, sitting down in a heap.
"What happened, Jessa?" asked Harry, the oldest of the Lippon boys,panting up at the head of the second wave of tow-headed Lippons.
"The – the air got heavy," Jessamy replied, sounding confused but nothurt.
"Heavy? What do you mean?" Harry moved beside his sister, and heldforward a cautious hand. This didn’t make him fall over, but Kendall sawsudden surprise on his face, and his hand trembled.
All the younger Lippons were crowding up now, fanning out in a circlebehind Jessamy, while others from the village were appearing at theedges of the Green. Miller Best had brought his new musket, but loweredit after seeing the woman.
"Isn’t she pretty?"
"Look at that dress!"
"Is she dead?"
As the crowd and the questions grew, Kendall edged around to one side,and held her hand toward the woman until she felt it go strange andheavy. It was possible to keep it there, but it was like holding a fullbucket out at arm’s-length. No wonder Jessamy had fallen, running rightinto this. Kendall’s nose itched, and she backed away.
Then Mayor Dorstan arrived from the bakery, his arms still streaked withflour, though he’d left his apron behind.
"Stand back, the lot of you," he ordered impatiently. "Give the womansome air." He started to kneel beside the stranger, then grunted withsudden effort. The mayor was a big man, all muscle except in the gut,and they could see the struggle it was for him not to fall. But MayorDorstan was stubborn, too, and he continued slowly down on one knee andreached out to touch the woman’s hand.
"My Lady?" he said. "Can you hear me?"
"She’s warm." His fingers circled her wrist as if to lift it, but theonly thing that happened was the muscles in his arms and shoulders stoodout, and his face went slowly purple.
"What in Fel’s name is this?" Mayor Dorstan muttered, then gave up andpushed himself to his feet, staggering away. Sweat dripped from hisface, and he took quite a time to get his breath. The woman just laythere while more and more villagers gathered, and stared, and wondered.
"Did anyone see her arrive?" Mayor Dorstan asked finally, still huffinga little.
"No-one’s come in since Cooper Robbins," said Kalan Huxtal. "I wouldhave seen aught else. Sure as shine would have seen this’un."
"If you’d been using your eyes, maybe," Mayor Dorstan growled, glaringabout him. He didn’t like magic, wasn’t even glad when theCircle-Turners arrived to make their rounds, and hated more anythingthat didn’t make sense. "Someone must have seen her."
It was hard to imagine any lady, dressed beacon-white and with all thathair, getting even a step into Falk without half the village spottingher. But no-one had. She was just there, unmoving, and immovable.
A morning in the sitting room had sent Rennyn Claire’s eyes blurry.She’d been conscientiously transcribing one of the older books intoneater, less faded script, adding commentary as she went. Surely shecould allow herself an afternoon’s work on the much-neglected gardenuntil the world became less fogged.
She was passing by the Map Room when a muted THuNK froze her in place.Not quite believing, Rennyn stared through the doorway at the model ofTyrland. For the whole of her twenty-five years, and long before, ablack spindle had been suspended above the map, swaying at the end of asingle hair fixed to the ceiling. Now it was buried an inch deep in aflat patch near the city of Sark.
The Verisian clock’s ticking caught her attention, as if it haddeliberately grown louder to remind her that time was marching on.
"So." Rennyn couldn’t think of anything less feeble to say, and wentupstairs to pack. Sark was a day, a day and a half’s ride away. Cuddywouldn’t appreciate the pace, and would make her regret not keeping thebay properly exercised, but it was better to ride than attract attentiontravelling more quickly.
"Ren! Ren!" Her brother came tearing up the stairs, only to notice hertravelling gear. "Oh, you’ve seen."
She nodded, keeping herself cool for his sake. Sebastian was justsixteen, and most-ways sensible, but he fretted. "Can you start on thecalculations while I’m gone, Seb?"
He tugged at his hair impatiently, eyes bright in his thin, clever face."Yes. Yes, of course. You will – I’ll have them done before you getback. Three days, right?"
"Thereabouts. Perhaps a little more, depending on what I find."
"Ren." He was thinking ahead now, concern edging through the excitement.
"This is the easy part, Seb," she said, touching his arm.
"Just – remember Great Grandfather."
That made her smile. "As if either of us ever forget."
After rechecking the location on the map, she paused in the hall andcarefully tugged a comb through her hair, handing it to Seb when she wasdone. Turning her attention to arranging her hat, she frowned at thesight she presented. Cold determination had set her features into linesshe barely recognised.
With some effort, she wiped any trace of her thoughts from her face,became the picture of a young countrywoman out for an afternoon’s ride.All their lives, she and Seb had been preparing for that spindle todrop. She refused to falter at the first hurdle.
The village was called Falk, and lay just south of one of Tyrland’smajor cities, Sark. Rennyn was fairly certain Cuddy would never forgiveher for riding till the very edge of night, then rising so early thenext morning, but there was a time limit to what she had to do, and sheneeded to do it without being observed.
Somehow. Falk swarmed, as overrun as a harvest fair, and Rennyn shookher head at the mass of people buying, selling and gawping. It had beenlittle more than a day: how had they assembled so quickly?
Attention was centred around a grassy area behind the main body ofhouses. It had been roped off, and was barely visible through the stallsand crowds lined up to pay for entry. This was not how Rennyn hadpictured this day, but she decided that it was after all an advantage.Among so many, she was wholly unremarkable. It should be possible tohide her actions in plain sight.
Paying a coin, she left Cuddy to be watered and rubbed down while shewaited in line. It was hot, a little past midday, and the press of folkmade it seem hotter still. Rennyn adjusted her hat and gazed about atall the people come to see something strange and intriguing. Childrenwho chattered or squabbled. Merchants bargaining over vegetables. Youngcouples, standing close together. A hired guard carefully cleaning hismusket. She felt like she was on the other side of a pane of glass, asif she were in the world beside this one, and none of these people couldsee her.
Sternly, Rennyn forced herself to smile and look excited. Remember GreatGrandfather, Seb had said. Remember the threat of violent death.
The people of Falk were charging a petthine to view their newly acquiredcuriosity, controlling the influx by only allowing groups of ten throughat a time. Rennyn might have been annoyed by their greed if she did nothave a reasonable idea of w ...